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THE GOODS : Hitting the Books

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Even if you’ve left the K-12 years far behind, the back-to-school season is a perfect time to hit the books. Want to improve your grade-point average as a savvy consumer? The curriculum is available.

Just stop in any bookstore and take your pick from the new batch of how-to paperbacks that offer consumer guidance on everything from general-interest issues (“How to Read the New Food Labels”) to specific predicaments (“How to Do Your Own Divorce in California”).

Although self-help books have been around for years, the spectrum of the new titles suggests some major shifts in consumer behavior, says Charles Winton, president of Publishers Group West.

He cites health books as a typical category. “The alternative health movement has moved into the popular culture,” he says. “The average American is much more attuned to the mind-body-nutritional aspects of health today than ever before. One out of three people uses some form of alternative medicine today.”

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New consumer titles can also serve as a financial barometer, says Mark Hoffman, editor of Consumer Reports Books, a leading how-to publisher.

“The popular how-to books have overlapped with the tightening economy and job uncertainty of the ‘90s,” he says. “People are forced to spend more wisely, so they’re looking carefully at their capital when buying a home or car or insurance policy.”

One of Consumer Reports Books’ bestsellers right now, he says, is “How to Sell Your House, Condominium or Co-Op.”

In addition, today’s consumer is increasingly bombarded by advertising claims through television, telemarketing and catalogues.

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“As the economic system gets increasingly complex, people are saying ‘I don’t want to get taken,’ ” Hoffman says. “So now we’re talking about getting value for your dollar and getting your rights.”

And the way to do this, he says, is to arm yourself with information. “Even a simple thing like buying tires requires doing your homework.”

To make that homework easier, most of today’s consumer paperbacks are extremely accessible. They use visual graphics, sample forms, sample letters, source lists and resource directories--all without wasting words.

“I think it’s a healthy trend,” Hoffman says. “These books give you real value.”

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The books listed here are only a small sampling of the ABCs of consumerism.

Home Improvement

“Landscape Doctor” by Sara Jane von Trapp (Chapters Publishing, 1994, $19.95). Remedies for common home landscaping problems, whether it’s hiding an ugly septic tank or building an attractive fence for privacy. Problems and solutions illustrated by a horticultural artist; book includes plant recommendations, construction tips, plans and diagrams.

“Kids’ Furniture You Can Build,” by David and Jeanie Stiles (Chapters Publishing, 1994, $17.95). Built-in beds and highchairs are two of the 15 designs for affordable, durable, children’s furniture meant to fill the gap between custom and mass-produced furniture. The projects are designed to be built with accessible materials and are aimed at anyone with rudimentary carpentry skills.

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Food

“Supermarket Buying Guide,” by Kent B. Banning and Mary Weber (Consumer Reports Books, 1994, $14.95). Smart shoppers can save up to $2,400 a year on their grocery bills. Learn how to avoid merchandising tricks (Why must you walk through the store to find a quart of milk?); when to use coupons, rebates and discounts; how to choose wisely from the 17,000 new items that appear each year. Includes Consumer Reports countrywide supermarket survey.

“How the New Food Labels Can Save Your Life!” by Peg Jordan (Michael Wiese Productions, 1994, $9.95). Points out some remaining pitfalls of the new food labels while equipping consumers with techniques for healthy eating, such as quick-checks to make on labels if you have high blood pressure, heart disease or osteoporosis, and ways to cut fat and lose weight using the new labels.

“Solar Gardening: Growing Vegetables Year-Round the American Intensive Way,” by Leandre Poisson and Gretchen Vogel Poisson (Chelsea Green Publishing Co., 1994, $24.95). Liberate your garden from fickle seasons with lightweight, easy-to-build solar appliances that stretch the growing season to 12 months. Illustrated with photographs, charts and tables, the handbook includes growing tips for more than 90 garden crops.

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Personal Finance

“52 Simple Ways to Manage Your Money,” by Judith A. Martindale and Mary J. Moses (Sourcebooks Inc., 1994, $9.95). A weekly journal and workbook aimed at developing confidence with money. Each chapter combines tips for solving a financial problem (from excessive shopping to compulsive hoarding) with an exploration of personal attitudes that could be limiting your ability to work with money.

“How to Sell Your House, Condo or Co-op,” by Amy Sprecher Bly and Robert W. Bly (Consumer Reports Books, 1993, $15.95). A handbook for people who see their houses as homes, not just investments, yet still want to make quick, reasonable sales in an uncertain market. All the essential information you need, from timing the sale to negotiating with a buyer and managing the finances.

Legal Guidance

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“Dog Law: A Legal Guide for Dog Owners and Their Neighbors,” by Mary Randolph (Nolo Press, 1994, $12.95). Urban life has increased the pressure on Fido’s owners and their neighbors. A practical guide of dos and don’ts, including laws about barking dogs, landlords, traveling with dogs, dealing with veterinarians and buying a dog. Emphasis on out-of-court conflict resolution.

“Landlording,” by Leigh Robinson. (ExPress, 1994, $23.95). Seventh edition of 430-page handbook includes hints, tips and laws for the scrupulous do-it-yourself landlord. Its 21 chapters lay out nuts and bolts of everything from keeping good tenants to painless evictions. Includes 62 legal forms and source lists of associations, catalogues, computer software, books and periodicals.

“Beat the Nursing Home Trap: Choosing and Financing Long-Term Care,” by Joseph Matthews (Nolo Press, 1994, $18.95). Translates Medicaid/Medicare mumbo-jumbo into plain English to help families find a nursing home, protect assets from Medicaid liens, evaluate nursing home insurance policies, get good in-home care and avoid rip-offs.

Consumer Protection

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“Getting Unscrewed and Staying That Way: The Sourcebook of Consumer Protection,” by David Klein, Marymae E. Klein and Douglas D. Walsh (Owl Paperbacks, 1994, $14.95). How to protect yourself from sales tactics used to deceive or defraud the public, and what steps to take if you have been cheated. Advice on dealing with car dealers, repair services, collection agencies and others; nationwide listings of consumer protection agencies.

“The Glam Scam: Successfully Avoiding the Casting Couch and Other Talent and Modeling Scams,” by Erik Joseph (Lone Eagle Publishing Co., 1994, $13.95). A red-flag checklist for all aspects of the glamour industry, from children’s commercials to movie roles. Dissects the come-ons, describes the players and lists regulatory laws by state.

Community

“Enough Is Enough: The Hellraiser’s Guide to Community Activism,” by Diane MacEachern (Avon Books, 1994, $10). A how-to manual for activists with no money, experience or power, but who want to make a change. Step-by-step instructions on key aspects of activism, whether it’s getting a stop sign on your street or a referendum on the ballot, combined with success stories of people who learned how to make the system work.

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“Creating Community Anywhere: Finding Support and Connection in a Fragmented World,” by Carolyn R. Shaffer and Kristin Anundsen (Tarcher/Perigee, 1993, $15.95). An up-to-date resource book for enlarging your mutual-support network, whether you live in the country or city. Includes ideas, starter kit, map and basic tools.


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